Youth Ministry Sunday – Trinity 14 – 2006
Today we are marking the
importance of ministry to young people. This is especially fitting on the
day that we start up our Sunday School for the fall. Passing on our faith
to the next generation should be one of the main concerns of the church,
so we have set aside this day to think and pray especially about it. Ministry to young
people, both children and teenagers, is a challenge and there is no point in
pretending that we are doing it as well as we could. But that is all the
more reason for setting aside time to focus on it. Ministry to children and
teens is of course a special priority for parents of children and teens, but
it is not just parents that ought to be concerned about it. And in fact it
is not. Some of our most active ministers to youth are in fact
grandparents, and great-grandparents. When the parents are preoccupied with
the day to day business of keeping the family afloat, sometimes it is the
older family members who are able to remember the spiritual side of family
life. The words of Psalm 71 could have been said by many of our older
“Thou, O God, hast
taught me from my youth, and even until now do I tell of thy wondrous
Forsake me not, O God,
in mine old age, when I am grey-headed, until I have showed thy strength
unto this generation, and thy power to all them that are yet to come.”
Those are the beautiful
words of an older person, who is still vitally concerned that the new
generations would have faith. And many in our congregation share that
concern in a very genuine way.
Our gospel reading today
doesn’t at first seem to have anything to do with youth ministry, but if we
look at it with a meditative eye we can see Biblical principles that show us
what it is that we are trying to provide for our young people. On his
journey Jesus was going into a village. On the outskirts there was a group
of ten lepers, who were keeping away from the rest of the people because of
their disease. Those 10 lepers may have had a disease, but they still had
faith, and they were willing to make a bit of a spectacle of themselves in
order to take this chance of being healed. So they shouted out to make sure
Jesus heard them:
“Jesus, Master, have
mercy on us!”
It is interesting what
Jesus did next. He told them, “Go, and show yourselves to the priests.”
Those men would have
been cut off from their families and communities ever since they had
contracted the disease. They would have been cut off from their religious
life too. No leper would be allowed in the synagogue or the Temple. When
Jesus told them to go and show themselves to the priests, he was telling
them to take the step that the Bible required to be reintegrated into the
community of God’s people. They would be reentering not only family life
but the whole life of worship and devotion that they had been brought up
with. For family, and community, and for faith, going to show themselves to
the priest would have been a home-coming. Jesus was saying “Go back to take
up the lives that you had lost.” And the men were healed as they went.
Well, wonderful. But
then one of the lepers stopped this homeward journey and returned, praising
God, and fell at Jesus’ feet, thanking him. Furthermore, this was a
Samaritan, and as we saw last week, he would not have been considered part
of the faith of God’s people.
But Jesus praised him,
and criticized the others for not doing as he did.
“Were not ten cleansed?
Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God
except this foreigner?”
And he said to him,
“Rise and go your way, your faith has saved you.”
Now the point here takes
a little reflection to grasp. Weren’t the other nine lepers doing what
Jesus told them to do? Why then is Jesus suggesting that they too should
have returned to give praise like the Samaritan? If he had meant them to do
that why didn’t he tell them to? It’s a good question. And when we run
across a question like this in the Bible, we ought to pay attention to it.
If we just shake our heads and say, “hmm, strange,” and go on to something
else, we will miss what the Bible is trying to tell us. Because these
questions or seeming contradictions often are the clue to the Bible’s
Actually, the question
in the passage is one that meets us very early in our lives. When I young a
relative would send me a birthday present. And my mother would tell me to
say thank you for the present. If the present came by mail, then I was
taught to write a thank you note, or maybe say thank you on the telephone.
But at a certain point my mother stopped telling me to say thank you.
Because at a certain point, gratitude has to come from within us. If you
have to tell the person to be grateful, it takes away the point. We just
had Tracey’s birthday at home.
And we went through the
different preparations, helping the kids to get mommy a present, a cake,
singing happy birthday. You can make the preparations but there is an
inward response that you are hoping for in the child, a joy and happiness on
the occasion, that you can’t plan or organize. In children as young as ours
you can usually count on it, but as children get older the inward response
becomes something that you can do less about.
In the passage about the
ten lepers, Jesus told the ten to go and show themselves to the priests. He
told them to take up their old family, community, religious life, and that
was good. He didn’t tell them the heart-changing response that ought to
come from their healing, because how could he tell them such a thing?
Obedience to the religious law and custom – that can be told. The
conversion of the heart in love to God – that has to come from within. But
that is what God is reaching out to us to find.
This gospel reading
tells us the two things we ought to want for our children and young people.
The first is the
foundation of Christian law and custom that make up our lives in the church.
prayers, Bible stories, Sunday School, giving to the church and to the poor,
being kind to the children around them – the basic ingredients of the
Christian life. These are the soil in which the shoots of our Christian
lives grow. These are the soil our young people should get the benefit of
I remember a friend
telling me about a camp for youth that he helped to run in Halifax, and they
had a lot of city kids there who weren’t from a church background. They
were teaching Bible stories and one little fellow, after being confused and
puzzled for quite a while, blurted out – “I’m a value.” What did he mean,
“I’m a value”? They figured out that there were two streams of education in
the schools, religious education and a secular form called “values
education.” This poor little guy didn’t know what to make of these Bible
stories but he had been taught that in some way they didn’t belong to him.
He was “a value.” Somehow I find it hard to imagine that that would have
given him as much comfort as knowing that he was a child of God and that
Jesus loved him.
Jesus himself grew up in
the soil of religious law and custom. The Gospel of Luke tells us about his
uncle, the priest Zechariah, father of John the Baptist. It tells us about
Mary and Joseph taking him to be dedicated in the Temple, and those
wonderfully devout folks Simeon and Anna who blessed him there. My New
Testament professor, describing this whole part of the Gospel of Luke, said
its purpose was to show us that Jesus grew up “in the cradle of Jewish
piety.” That sheds such a light on these stories. “The cradle of Jewish
piety.” A cradle – because that is what these customs are, isn’t it? A
cradle for the life of the spirit. And piety, because that is what we are
really talking about. Piety is almost a bad word for us.
We talk about someone
who is pious, and it’s almost an insult. It seems to suggest someone who is
self-satisfied and self-righteous about their religious life. Perhaps there
are people like that, although looking around I don’t see any. Piety has to
do with the practices that enable us to have a religious life at all.
And in that sense we
should want our children to be raised in a cradle of piety. They should
feel comfortable praying. They should feel a love for Jesus and his words.
They should feel that the church, which conveys these things, has a place in
their lives. They should feel all that and we should go on feeling it. The
ten lepers had been uprooted from all that and Jesus sent them back to it.
Our children should have the chance to grow up in it. The other thing that
we want for them is not so tangible or organizable. Where the cradle of
piety has to do with outward habits, customs, and regular patterns, the
second thing has to come from deep within the heart.
The Samaritan leper
“turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at
Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks.” His heart had changed, he had gone beyond
the cradle of piety, while still remaining within it. He loved God and
loved Jesus with a whole-heartedness that would go on into the future at the
core of his being. This is what Jesus wanted in the Samaritan leper and all
the lepers. But he couldn’t tell them to do it because that is not
possible. This is what we want for our young people – that they turn
whole-heartedly to Jesus. But we can’t plan it for them either – it has to
come from within.
It came as a shock to
Mary and Joseph when Jesus himself started to show this deeper dimension of
faith, when they found him talking with the teachers in the Temple, saying,
“Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” What we can do is
to foster and grow this deeper faith in our own hearts. We can go on making
sure that Jesus is first in our lives.
This doesn’t mean
breaking up the patterns of our family, community and religious lives – the
cradle of piety. The response of the Samaritan goes beyond these things but
it provides the foundation for them.
Practically, we each
have a part to play in the Christian upbringing of our young people.
This is so important and
in our secularized society, so difficult, that we need to look for ways that
we can help out. The older among us can remember the dedication of the old
Psalmist: “Forsake me not, O God, in mine old age, when I am
grey-headed, until I have showed thy strength unto this generation, and thy
power to all them that are yet to come.” Prayer is one of the most
important parts of this, and we can all pray. The people that are actually
teaching Sunday School, and those that have been doing it but are taking a
well-deserved rest, can be encouraged by those who aren’t in the position to
do it themselves. It takes all of us to do this important work, which is so
important to the church and to the Kingdom of God.